The budget scare tactics have begun.
In Palmer, staff of the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers Home were told they may have to find another place to work in August.
On Friday, word quickly trickled out to the residents, who are among the most vulnerable of populations in the state: The Senate was closing down the home.
The Walker Administration had even circulated a memo: Get ready for closure.
Except for one pesky detail: The Senate had not made those cuts.
The Senate’s 5.7 percent cut made to the nearly $1.1 billion Health and Social Services budget was largely unallocated, meaning that cuts can come from anywhere in the department.
The Senate had asked the department to trim for less than six cents on the dollar. The Walker Administration said those cuts, which had been merely parked by the Senate as a placeholder in the budget, would remain there.
At an impromptu meeting on Friday morning, staff members of the Palmer facility were informed that the only possible way for the Department of Health and Social Services to absorb the cut to its budget by closing the home down.
Sen. Peter Micciche was not impressed with the scare tactic. “We specifically protected seniors in the HSS budget in the subcommittee process and demanded that no cuts go to senior services. The cuts had already been adequate in their category. When the budget left the subcommittee process my expectation was that seniors would continue to be protected,” said Micciche, who chairs the HSS budget subcommittee.
“The administration is specifically using scenarios to cause fear — in the desire to arrive at an income tax. The bottom line is that we’ll fight to ensure the Pioneers Homes will continue as they have historically,” Micciche said.
Normally, an administration doesn’t strike out with fear tactics at this point in the budget process.
But a note from Anthony Newman of the Department of Health and Social Services, reiterated the department’s stance that it would likely close the Palmer Veterans and Pioneers Home, which is predominantly caring for veterans:
“Following the Senate’s action on Monday to reduce funding for the Pioneer Homes by $6,542.6, the Department sent word to its administrators that the closure of the homes was only realistic way to meet this proposed budget target. The Palmer Home would be the most likely Home to be closed because the community has other resources that could be available to residents, and the Anchorage Home could be able to take those who had no other options. Be aware that closure of one Home will not be enough to meet the budget target, so the Department is analyzing the savings that would be achieved by closing the Juneau Pioneer Home as well.”
The note went on to say the closures would begin in August and a skeleton staff would then complete shut down of the Palmer facility by October.
Copied on that note were Commissioner Valerie Davidson, and numerous HSS division directors and senior staff, as well as members of the Governor’s Office legislative liaison team.
Predictably, word leaked around the state. In Ketchikan, the city council was told the Pioneer Home could also be in peril.
Alarm bells went off in the senior services economy. After an extensive remodel in 2004 to meet U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs requirements, the Palmer home was renamed the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers Home and gets federal assistance. Seventy-five percent of the 79 beds in the home are designated for veterans, with just 25 percent available for non-veterans. About 100 people work at the home.
Members of the Valley delegation received an email from a Palmer resident who works at the Palmer Veterans and Pioneer Home, telling of the impromptu meeting and saying that staff was told the home would close unless there was an income tax.
An income tax has been proposed by House Democrats. The Veterans and Pioneers Home in Palmer is in Republican country.
During the budget process, it’s not unheard of for an administration to use a “Statue of Liberty” strategy, named after the method employed by the U.S. Park Service. Whenever it receives a cut it shuts down the nation’s most popular monuments.
Must Read Alaska spoke to a staff member close to the Senate Finance Committee: “We did have to make cuts in the places where there is the most UGF (undesignated general funds). But we put an unallocated cut on HSS. The department heads can move that money around but they’re spinning it this way because they want us to cave.”
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su Republican, said he could help the governor find cuts, if he needed help.
“Amazing. The governor can open up gas pipeline offices in Tokyo and Houston, can hire an army of lawyers and pay consultants $800,000, but he throws veterans and old people to the curb? We’re not going to let that happen.” Dunleavy said.
The Valley delegation, with Rep. Cathy Tilton as strong and experienced lead on the HSS budget, is also looking at different places where the department could have made cuts. Tilton for years worked as a legislative aide to House Finance and the HSS budget was her prime responsibility.
Several of the House amendments to the HSS budget were voted down by the Democrat-led House majority, so Tilton has a starting point, although she is now in the minority caucus.
“This hasn’t even gone through conference committee yet, so for the governor to use these scare tactics and get the residents of the Pioneers’ Homes and their families upset, is really unconscionable. And it’s not very transparent,” she said.